Agriculture and Food:

Posthearing Questions Related to Fragmentation and Overlap in the Federal Food Safety System

GAO-04-832R: Published: May 26, 2004. Publicly Released: May 26, 2004.

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GAO testified before Congress at the hearing A System Rued: Inspecting Food. This report responds to Congress's request that GAO provide answers to follow-up questions from the hearing.

The current structure of the food safety system in general, and the food inspection programs in particular, could be improved by reducing the number of entities charged with oversight, thereby enhancing accountability and increasing government efficiency. From a congressional perspective, the fragmented nature of the food inspection system results in divided, and perhaps diluted, responsibility for ensuring a safe food supply and protecting the public health. It is difficult to compare program effectiveness when the agencies responsible for maintaining food safety are operating under different statutory requirements. In addition, for consumers as well as for GAO, it is at times difficult to determine which agency is responsible for ensuring the safety of a particular food product. Beyond the issues of organizational inefficiency and confusing jurisdictional responsibilities, the vulnerability of our food supply to potential attack and deliberate contamination provides a new and compelling impetus for reorganizing the federal food inspection system. As several of our recent testimonies have stressed, bioterrorist attacks could be directed at many different targets in the farm-to-table continuum, including crops, livestock, and food products in the processing and distribution chain. In our view, consolidating all food safety functions (e.g. standard setting, inspection, risk assessment, research, and surveillance) under a single independent agency would offer the most logical approach to resolve long-standing problems, address emerging food safety issues, and better ensure a safe food supply. If, instead, all food safety authorities were consolidated under an existing agency, the advantages and disadvantages of charging USDA or FDA with those responsibilities must be considered. In our view, a unified, risk-based approach to federal food safety should characterize any new inspection system. A critical step in designing and implementing a riskbased food safety system is identifying the most important food safety problems, across the entire food system, from a public health perspective. Identifying these problems would help focus federal oversight resources. Comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation is needed to provide the foundation for this approach. We also believe that in order to be effective, a federal food inspection system should also include performance standards to help evaluate the effectiveness of federal regulatory requirements for industry and its efforts to meet those requirements. From our perspective, reorganization of food safety authorities, including the consolidation of critical functions such as rule making, inspection, surveillance, and research, does not necessarily mean that all functions should be incorporated into a single food safety agency. In fact, we believe it may make sense to maintain some functions separately. However, in the event of consolidation limited strictly to the food inspection functions, we believe that all food inspection functions should be incorporated into the single food safety agency.

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